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DSLR vs cell phone camera vs digicam

Next up: Apples vs Oranges

August 13th, 2013

I recently picked up the Nexus 4, and it's the first time I find myself really using a cell phone as a camera. Obviously, a DSLR has better image quality, but just how much better? I compared the Nexus 4 to the Canon 600D (AKA T3i) to find out - and also threw in the the compact point and shoot Olympus TG-310 for good fun.

The contestants

Canon 600D/T3i

Good all-round entry level DSLR, which retails for around 500 USD. I will be using the 18-55mm (f/3.5-5.6) kit lens in all tests. Just like a cell phone, the kit lens is light and flexible, and it's what many people use.

The Canon 600D - stealth mode with taped over logo and strap removed.
The Canon 600D - stealth mode with taped over logo and strap removed.

The LG Google Nexus 4

Equipped with an 8 megapixel sensor for taking pictures, and a large, bright screen for viewing them. Can be picked up for around 350 USD.

The Nexus 4.
The Nexus 4.

Olympus TG-310

Waterproof and shockproof, but how is the image quality? We'll see how this holds up against the others. It's a bit older and off the market by now, but its (very similar) successor, the TG-320 can be had for around 150 USD, making it the cheapest of the bunch.

The Olympus TG-310.
The Olympus TG-310.
So its Canon 600D/T3i vs LG Google Nexus 4 vs Olympus TG-310 - which one will win? Let's find out.

Round 1: Subject Isolation

Isolating the subject using a shallow depth of field can be super-useful, especially for portrait shots and when the background is messy. A large sensor and wide aperture is usually needed for the effect.

Person-sized object

Because no one would sign a model release. ;)

Canon: At 55mm, the kit lens has a f/5.6 aperture, which is not quite enough for a shallow DOF. There is some bokeh patterns in the background, but there is little of it and it looks rather ugly. A better lens would help here.
Canon: At 55mm, the kit lens has a f/5.6 aperture, which is not quite enough for a shallow DOF. There is some bokeh patterns in the background, but there is little of it and it looks rather ugly. A better lens would help here.
Nexus: Small sensor, wide angle - sharp background. Not the desired effect, nothing to see here. Also looks a bit underexposed.
Nexus: Small sensor, wide angle - sharp background. Not the desired effect, nothing to see here. Also looks a bit underexposed.
Olympus: Using the zoom, we can throw the background out of focus just a bit, but it is barely noticeable.
Olympus: Using the zoom, we can throw the background out of focus just a bit, but it is barely noticeable.

Close up

Getting closer usually creates a more shallow depth of field.

Canon: Creamy, buttery, sweet - this is why people get DSLRs. Subject is well isolated and the background is just a blur.
Canon: Creamy, buttery, sweet - this is why people get DSLRs. Subject is well isolated and the background is just a blur.
Nexus: The effect is noticeable, but cannot compete with the DSLR. And the wide angle makes our ninja look fat.
Nexus: The effect is noticeable, but cannot compete with the DSLR. And the wide angle makes our ninja look fat.
Olympus: Slightly better than the Nexus, but not by much.
Olympus: Slightly better than the Nexus, but not by much.

Subject isolation: The Canon is clearly the Bokeh Master - but it needs something better than the kit lens to shine.

While it works well for portraits, a shallow DOF could be a problem sometimes - what if you want everything in focus? And what if there is only little light available? The DSLR then needs to stop down, maybe to f/11 which would increase the exposure time significantly. Cell phones and compacts (mostly) do not suffer from this problem.

Round 2: Dynamic Range

A good camera can capture both dark and bright areas in a scene, without over- or underexposing.

Canon: The DSLR should shine here, but leaves a rather underwhelming result. The sky was clear blue on that day, but looks almost completely washed out.
Canon: The DSLR should shine here, but leaves a rather underwhelming result. The sky was clear blue on that day, but looks almost completely washed out.
Nexus: Washed out sky, and dark areas too dark (look at the graffiti). Also the rock looks more brown than gray.
Nexus: Washed out sky, and dark areas too dark (look at the graffiti). Also the rock looks more brown than gray.
Olympus: We see some sky, but for some reason, the cliff looks washed out and lacks detail. Also the trees look unnatural.
Olympus: We see some sky, but for some reason, the cliff looks washed out and lacks detail. Also the trees look unnatural.
Canon: Flowers are well exposed, but the background - the houses - is blown out. Could be because I forgot to stop down - but the sky seems overexposed as well.
Canon: Flowers are well exposed, but the background - the houses - is blown out. Could be because I forgot to stop down - but the sky seems overexposed as well.
Nexus: Underexposed subject and overexposed background.
Nexus: Underexposed subject and overexposed background.
Nexus HDR: The Nexus has an HDR function, and with it activated there is a better balance. The houses in the background are well exposed, the flowers look better and the sky is blue. Useful in many situations, but it does not look natural to me.
Nexus HDR: The Nexus has an HDR function, and with it activated there is a better balance. The houses in the background are well exposed, the flowers look better and the sky is blue. Useful in many situations, but it does not look natural to me.
Olympus: The Olympus decides to expose for the background instead of for the subject.
Olympus: The Olympus decides to expose for the background instead of for the subject.

Dynamic range: Interestingly, the Canon did not outperform the other cameras as much as I thought it would. But its exposure generally looks more correct so it still wins in my book.

Round 3: Zooming

Some say approaching the subject is the best way of shooting. However, a zoom is useful in many situations. At the zoo for example, unless you want to get social with the bears.

Canon: OK.
Canon: OK.
Nexus: The digital zoom pixelates the image and noise is everywhere. Avoid.
Nexus: The digital zoom pixelates the image and noise is everywhere. Avoid.
Olympus: OK.
Olympus: OK.

Zooming: Having one is better than not having one. No clear winner, but the cell phone loses this round.

Round 4: Macro

Just how close can you get?

Canon: Gets fairly close at 55mm.
Canon: Gets fairly close at 55mm.
Nexus: Wide angle, and could not get it to focus closer than about 3-4 inches. Not really macro.
Nexus: Wide angle, and could not get it to focus closer than about 3-4 inches. Not really macro.
Olympus: Some compacts are great at taking macro pictures, and the olympus does quite well here.
Olympus: Some compacts are great at taking macro pictures, and the olympus does quite well here.

Macro: The Olympus takes this one. The Canon would probably win if it could use a macro lens, but that would be cheating.

Über-Pro Tip of the Day: The DSLR has a trick up its sleeve when it comes to macro. By unscrewing the lens and holding it backwards in front of the camera, you can use it as a macro lens and get extremely close. But without special equipment (like duct tape) you cannot mount the lens this way and it's a rather awkward way of shooting - plus you might get dust in the camera.

Round 5: Low-light

Canon: Not too bad. ISO 3200, 1/20 sec. Luckily, the lens has an optical stabilizer.
Canon: Not too bad. ISO 3200, 1/20 sec. Luckily, the lens has an optical stabilizer.
Nexus: The white balance seems off, and at ISO 1700, there is quite a bit of noise. I prefer it over camera shake though. 1/14 sec, f/2.6.
Nexus: The white balance seems off, and at ISO 1700, there is quite a bit of noise. I prefer it over camera shake though. 1/14 sec, f/2.6.
Olympus: With its lackluster ISO performance, the camera stays at ISO 200. To avoid camera shake, the exposure is limited to 1/4 sec, which gives us this underexposed image.
Olympus: With its lackluster ISO performance, the camera stays at ISO 200. To avoid camera shake, the exposure is limited to 1/4 sec, which gives us this underexposed image.
Canon: Subject looks underexposed, and the sky is very bright for some reason. We are down to 1/13 sec, the kit lens feels too slow for situations like these.
Canon: Subject looks underexposed, and the sky is very bright for some reason. We are down to 1/13 sec, the kit lens feels too slow for situations like these.
Nexus: Noisy. But no camera shake.
Nexus: Noisy. But no camera shake.
Olympus: Shaky and blue.
Olympus: Shaky and blue.

Low-light: DSLRs reign supreme here, with good noise performance and high ISO speeds. But the cell phones are picking up.

Conclusion

To sum it up:

  • The DSLR has the best noise performance, dynamic range, highest resolution, and it can create the shallowest depth of field. It also offers a lot of manual control. If it's only about image quality, this is the best choice.
  • The compact has an optical zoom which should not be understated. It is also quite cheap and small. As an added bonus, this particular model is 10ft waterproof. However, its mediocre image quality and lackluster low-light performance makes it a poor choice in many situations.
  • The cell phone has an image quality comparable to a compact, but it lacks many manual controls, like shutter speed. On the other hand, it's very quick and easy to use. Possibly, its main strength lies in always being with you, and other stuff like image editing apps and sharing.

So while the DSLR still has the best image quality, the cell phones are closer than one might think. Still, using a DSLR is also about being in control, and being able to use the camera with additional equipment like flash guns, tripods, remote triggers - and of course, lenses. But if that's not your thing, a cell phone should be enough in the vast majority of situations.

August 29th, 2013 10:35
Vivek

Nice comparison. I like it.

August 30th, 2013 00:48
Erik

Hi Vivek,

thank you! If you have any questions, just me know.

September 2nd, 2013 21:26
Pamo

Hur kommer linsen att klara sig på telefonerna.
Typ damm och grus i fickan?

November 1st, 2013 12:25

Hi Erik,

Cool post, not a very bright future for compact digital cameras I suppose. Let's catch up on Skype soon!

Cheers,
Robert

December 8th, 2014 07:03
minnesh

i need some help, got a 600 d really having a difficult time getting the setting right, in door is a disaster, can u help with some advise
thank u kindly
minnesh

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Erik Moberg  2019